On Latinamericanism after 9/11
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John Beverley’s Latinamericanism after 9/11 is invaluable in its proposal to map out the last decade in Latin American studies, a period that is difficult to characterize and from which the clear lines of debate and reference points which had defined the decade of the nineties seem to be missing. Exemplary of the conundrum that decade has posed was the call in a special issue of Revista Hispánica Moderna edited by Graciela Montaldo to address “what happens when nothing happens?” Montaldo, in her very lucid introduction to the issue, characterized the emotional tonality of such a moment as one of unease (“malestar”) and the sense that the space of Latin American studies – despite its continued emphasis on the political – was no longer a “campo problemático”:
Más parecido al desarrollo de una escritura profesional, ya no parece ser una práctica atravesada por debates y conflictos. Esta impresión supone no tanto un tiempo mejor en que los debates que agitaron el campo mantenían tan exaltada a la comunidad del latinoamericanismo sino la constatación misma de una práctica que no lograba estabilizarse ni bajo el nombre de la comunidad ni del latinoamericanismo, algo que nunca llegó a ser una disciplina pero que, sin embargo, formaba parte de la experiencia de intelectuales y académicos como marco u horizonte de sus discursos. (1)
The absence indicated by the question (the not-happening) measures out the inability of an intellectual community and field to stabilize itself and the consequent loss of horizons. Among the reasons for this loss is what one could call the privatization of discourse. Montaldo gestures to this phenomenon when she singles out the closure of important journals and the emergence of the phenomena of blogs. When debates do take place, they are now segmented, take place outside institutional spaces, between equals, and are, for that very reason, less visible. With the evacuation of a public, common space, she argues, Latinamericanism has acquired a merely mercantile character, reduced simply to a professional practice.
In a recent piece Alberto Moreiras voices a similar experience of evacuation of the field or, more specifically, of a “retirada” which began after LASA 2001 and in which critical dialogue withered. Certain critical tendencies were destroyed, he writes, others concealed, yet others isolated and fragmented. Whether this withdrawal was somehow immanent to the academic field itself (a result of the announced dissolution of the subaltern studies project and the actual debates that took place at LASA 2001) or overdetermined by 9/11 and the beginning of the war on terror is left open. Still, for Moreiras the most recent LASA offered the potential for a reversal of the last ten years with a new collective project with extra-disciplinary potential under the concept of post-hegemony.
Beverley’s book takes on the same decade and, by bringing into the same frame the discourse of Latinamericanism with political changes taking place in Latin America, offers a diagnosis which one could name not so much as an evacuation or withdrawal but of a dis-appointment, in the sense that Ackbar Abbas has used it in his analysis of Hong Kong cinema and further glossed by David Theo Goldberg as a failure “ to comply or live up to pre-ordained expectations”, a refusal of “appointed and so anticipated sites or roles” (Goldberg, 55). In other words, Latinamericanism after 9/11 maps out a field whose horizons are tethered by appointments it should be keeping with a wider social and political referent. Thus, Beverley writes, that “[t]he question of Latinamericanism is, ultimately, a question of the identity of the Latin American state” (110). This then is the question that Beverley’s book raises for me so starkly: what kind of appointments—if any—are possible today? The question issues with particular force from Latinamericanism after 9/11 given the several decades of key contributions and interventions by Beverley and the way this book, in particular, tries to concatenate futures with a past and pasts with a future.
9/11 is central to Beverley’s account of the changed geopolitical landscape and the corresponding changes in Latinamericanism. One of the most significant fallouts of the event is the turning away of the U.S. from Latin America (after decades of intervention during the Cold War era) and the simultaneous withdrawal of Latin American states from the Washington Consensus with the so called pink tide. This new distance creates the conditions of possibility for the reemergence of a leftist project, which had seemingly been eradicated in previous decades under neoliberalism and dictatorship. At the same time it also creates new conditions of possibility for a renewed meaningful connection between such a project and academic discourse on Latin America. Yet, argues Beverley, at the very moment that the left finally comes into power with the governments of Hugo Chavez, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner and Evo Morales what marks Latinamericanism is instead a neo-conservative tendency. This neo-conservative turn has its roots both in what Beverley calls neo-Arielismo and in deconstructive lines of thinking. In contrast to a dominant but waning neoliberal position (and which he, in shorthand, associates with Vargas Llosa, McOndo, Generación Crack, and the tendency in cultural studies that puts an emphasis on consumer choice and ‘civil society’ ), the ascendant neo-conservative position is characterized by the rejection of the authority of subaltern voice and experience, the defense of the writer-critic, the affirmation of a Latin American criollo subject (as opposed to the Anglo-American character of certain theoretical positions), a failure to come to terms with the coloniality of power in Latin America, a reterritorialization of disciplines against nomad sciences (particularly a new defense of humanities and literature after the failures of neoliberalism) and a disavowal of the armed revolutionary struggle of the 1960s.
In part this diagnosis extends Beverley’s previous very compelling critiques of neo-Arielismo and the lettered city in Against Literature and Subalternity and Representation. Where it differs, however, is in his break with subaltern studies given what he calls its “fraternal” relation with deconstruction (the “identification of subalternism, leftism and deconstruction has become problematic for me” ) and the subsequent grouping of deconstruction under the neo-conservative tendency. The specific problem with deconstruction for Beverley—in a context marked more generally by the waning of the golden age of theory—is what he understands as the inability of deconstruction/subaltern studies to come to terms with the governments of the marea rosada in which political initiatives now correspond to the concerns of subaltern populations. It is dis-appointing.
For Beverley a new way of thinking the relationship between state and society becomes necessary when “subaltern-popular social movements originating well outside the parameters of the state and formal politics (including the traditional parties of the Left) have ‘become the state’ ... or have lent themselves to political projects seeking to occupy the state” (110). In this new and changed context, the subaltern critique of the state is insufficient or, worse, equivalent to a renunciation of actual politics. In eschewing a position of solidarity with these new governments, the deconstructive position reveals itself as characterized by an over-valuation of intellectual and cultural critique and an undervaluation of new, popular forms of knowledge, culture, and agency that are now aligned with state power in many cases but that don’t fit metropolitan Latinamericanism or US based Latinamericanism. Beverley advances the need to relegitimize the nation-state (even when it is a transformed state, or a “state that is not a state” in García Linera’s words) under conditions of globalization, in the face of neoliberal critique and the privatization of state functions. (42) To the extent that Latinamericanism fails to do so it misses the opportunity to make a meaningful connection with the new forms of sociality and power on the ground and in this dis-appointment thus aligns itself with support for the status quo.
Yet the book is structured by a tension between appointments with a future and appointments with a past. On the one hand, Beverley issues a challenge for a radically new form of thinking, a call for thinking to catch up to reality on the ground. The book’s last lines, for example, state that “[t]he Latin American nation-states and “Latin America” as a transnational entity will continue to exist and to exercise a certain ‘hegemony’ over people’s lives. But they will do so in radically new ways, which we have only begun to anticipate and understand” (126). On the other hand, at the very heart of Beverley’s book is a chapter I found to be particularly rich, moving and revelatory in which he argues that part of the revaluation of state and society now requires a reassessment of the memory of the 1960s. This is a task to be undertaken by his generation, he says, because it is the last that can do so in terms of personal memory or recollection. Beverley very persuasively argues that the 1960s have thus far been remembered in only partial and stilted ways, repudiated as an adolescent error (in a transposition of the figure of the repentant Baroque pícaro) or viewed as doomed from the start under the inevitable shadow of neoliberalism:
Our disillusion has not been thorough enough. It has not worked through the melancholia of defeat. As a result, it leaves (or seeks to impose) a residual guilt that shades into an acceptance of, or identification with, the powers that be, which ... ends up being something like a Latin American version of the neoconservative turn in post-sixties U.S. culture. (109)
Beverley makes a very strong case for opening up the contingency of that moment and its aftermath. What would the 1960s look like through an optic which didn’t locate its failure in the internal contradictions which undoubtedly existed? What if the spirit of the 1960s was simply defeated by a stronger enemy? One might see, for example, the extent to which the terrain of politics and social activism continues to be articulated in important ways by the heritage of the armed struggle. In a sense, one could say that what drives Beverley’s book is the restoration of the 1960s to its appointed place as something other than a wrong turn, as a possibility still alive and well. What is the future of that past?
When the political theorist Ronaldo Munck quips that the anti-globalization movement seems to be “the spirit of 1968 ‘gone global’” (29) or that “‘1968’ is very much a dress rehearsal for events such as Seattle 1999 and the whole anti-globalization wave” (52), he sketches out the possibility for tracing an arc—or producing a charged constellation—between the 60s and now, such as Beverley might desire. At the same time, Munck makes a very strong case for widening the lens with which one views contemporary contestations of globalization (what he, following Karl Polanyi, describes as a counter-movement against the dispossession generated by the expansion of the free market) beyond the movements and protests with which academic (and non-academic) coverage is generally sympathetic, to include movements such as the U.S. Patriots and al-Qaeda. The relationship between 1968 and these other social movements (he explicitly rejects the label of anti-movement to describe them) is—if anything—more oblique. What past does one harness to this future? Mike Davis suggests a similar terrain of analysis when he argues that today “populist Islam and Pentecostalist Christianity (and in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early twentieth-century socialism and anarchism” (30), and that “Pentecostalism has been the single most important cultural response to explosive and traumatic urbanization” (32). With these examples (which both touch upon but geographically exceed Latin America) Munck and Davis argue for a fundamental break in the constitution of the social and for the displacement of much of our political and critical vocabulary when faced with these new phenomena.
Even, then, if the state is still an important actor in today’s political landscape, as Beverley argues, it seems to be so only as a nodal point in a highly changed spatiotemporal order. Even when the nation-state still exists and still continues to exert effects, many of the operations associated with the state have been “unbundled”, in Saskia Sassen’s terms, from the national as the key spatial unit. In attempting to attend to new geographies of centralization, Sassen turns to the city as one such alternative spatial unit that has acquired greater force under globalization, making it the “site for new types of political operations and for a whole range of new cultural and subjective operations” (112). Among these new political operations may be, in Munck’s analysis, the supersession of governments for “governance” in which states “steer” rather than “command” society, and where the market is allowed to play a full role in allocating resources. Such governance is presented and perceived by many as less hierarchical or bureaucratic than traditional governments; phrases like coordination, consultation and community involvement are key to the new governmental lexicon(10). Yet such governance also depends on an evacuation or removal of questions of politics and power from the equation, an evacuation that is at the core of the agenda of agents of globalization in a post-Washington Consensus. Munck argues that the counter-movement to such an agenda is to push for a return of the “political” (but this, as already mentioned above, does not necessarily take what one might traditionally describe as “progressive” form).
In contrast, Beverley strives to restore the possibility of an appointment between a given conceptual vocabulary and the current political topography and he disagrees with the proposition that globalization is a new historical stage or, more precisely, with the suggestion that this paradigm is more immediately pertinent to contemporary Latin America than other ones. Latin America could be moving a destiempo to global currents, in other words. This argument largely takes form through his repudiation of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire in Chapter Two, “The Persistence of Nation (against Empire).” Beverley argues that one may be witnessing instead a “restoration” much like the period in which the radicalizing impulse of French and Haitian revolutions waned following the death of Napoleon until the revolutionary upsurges of 1848. In contrast to a new stage in history, a restoration “represents the blockage of historical processes that has already been set in motion, rather than its transcendence” (101). The social and economic contradictions that give rise to the historical process are not structurally modified but simply repressed. They continue to be active and will emerge even if in new and unexpected forms as the forces of restoration wane. If one assumes this fundamental continuity then one can argue, as Beverley does, that the armed struggle of the 1960s is “an enterprise that had at its core much of what Latin America still wants and aspires to become” (109) (emphasis mine). Yet is not clear that making an appointment with the 1960s is the same thing as making an appointment with a current panorama and its futures. The urge to thread through and forge a connection between new, radical and unanticipated emergent forms and a core still to be found in the 1960s shows itself as simply that: an urge. This is not to say that it is so easy to dismiss the challenge implicit there: if not this past, then which one?
Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer is in many ways a perfect example of Beverley’s insistence that “nuestra América” also includes or extends into North or Anglo America (25), although this is given paradoxical form in a sci-fi scenario in which the wall between the United States and Mexico has been built up completely and immigration to the U.S. is now only possible virtually. Instead of crossing over, migrants operate remote controlled robots to which they are hooked up through nodes on their bodies (thus fulfilling the American Dream of “work” without the workers). The movie explicitly raises the issue of articulating a past future (the future that the main character Memo’s father says was taken from them when the river was dammed up by a multinational water corporation) with a new future’s past (Memo’s rearticulation of the image of his father and his milpa at the edge of the wall in Tijuana). With the flow of the river and of Memo’s father’s life blocked, the movie proposes something similar to David Lloyd’s argument that the violence of the Irish famine destroyed less life itself than “the unruly, hopeful imagination of a future in which that life is lived otherwise, athwart the direction violence imposes on history” (40). What is destroyed is this “alternative track of human unfolding...an only fitfully imaginable possible future” (43). At a critical juncture the movie places together an image of that aborted future and a newly emerging future through the superimposition of the stone that Memo’s father throws against the dam with the bomb that (through Memo’s intervention) blows up that dam near the end of the movie. They are and are not the same movement. That aborted future that could have been is still lost, and while Memo plants corn as his father did, his future is one of radical homelessness at the edge of everything. There are articulations, to be sure, but the movie refuses the language of cores.
If I turn to film as counter-examples it is because, in a passage that is telling, Beverley is unable to suppress a certain disappointment with current film which does not rival the great films of the sixties and seventies:
Part of the originality and promise of the armed struggle in Latin America was embodied in its cultural superstructure. For example, while I don’t mean to downplay what is happening today in Latin American film, understanding that each new generation has to find its own path of expression, I see nothing that rivals in scope or ambition the great Cuban films of the late sixties and seventies; or the Brazilian cinema novo, particularly the work of Glauber Rocha; or the massive documentary reconstruction of the rise and fall of Allende’s Popular Unity government, La batalla de Chile; or the Argentine masterpiece La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces), one of the most daring and original films produced anywhere in the world in that period, until recently available only in pirated copies, even in Argentina. All of these films and many, many more were deeply related to the impulse of the armed struggle. (105)
This passage—one of two which refers to film in the book—stood out to me because the renewed emergence of Latin American film has seemed to me an extremely productive site through which to think about new forms of the political emerging today. This is so in particular because while many recent films articulate a clear dialogue with the “great” moment of Latin American film in the 1960s and display a clear preoccupation for conditions of poverty, dispossession and exploitation, it is clear that this is a more complicated enterprise today, in contrast to the pretension of the films in the 1960s to accompany armed struggle and political movements more broadly—to act as its “cultural superstructure”, as Beverley says. What many films register above all is the dis-appointment – the lack of correspondence – that Beverley reads not only in film but also in the cultural criticism that marks the field of Latin Americanism.
One of the films traversed and indeed shaped by this failure of correspondence is José Padilha’s Bus 174 (2003). This is so because it is a movie that seeks to reproduce to some extent the project of many of the films of the 60s and which – at the same time – shows that the conditions of possibility have changed in such a way that that project is no longer tenable. Bus 174 is a documentary about an incident that took place in Rio de Janeiro, in which a man (Sandro) kidnapped a bus and held its travelers hostage for several hours in a stand off with the police. The documentary juxtaposes real footage of the events as they unfolded with interviews with those involved—such as the police and the hostages—as well as those who knew Sandro before that fateful day. Its central hypothesis about who Sandro is and why he took bus 174 hostage is voiced in one interview by the sociologist Luis Eduardo Soares, who says: "We are nothing if someone doesn’t look at us, acknowledge the worth of our existence". Street children in Brazil, he says, “are hungry for social existence, hungry for recognition," yet they feel "invisible" in their social milieu. In hijacking the bus Sandro became "the main character in a new narrative" and "redefined the social narrative" itself. The central problem therefore is voiced as one of representation and the purpose of the documentary is, presumably, to give Sandro a visibility and a social existence even after dying. On this level the documentary seems to reproduce the desire driving so many movies of the 1960s: to represent those the state had failed to represent.
Yet this project is complicated for a variety of reasons. Among them is Sandro’s relation to the circulation of images in a society saturated by media images that complicate the narrative of the passage from invisibility into visibility. The presence of TV cameras on the scene affects the course of events, causing the police to hesitate in engaging with Sandro and leading Sandro into playing a role he’s seen in action movies on TV (even as he shouts that what is happening is real and not an action movie).
At the same time, while the movie seems to be designed to explain why Sandro acted as he did (why he resorted, therefore, to violence), the moment of greatest violence in the documentary is not Sandro’s hijacking of the bus but his death at the hands of police who choke him with the energy of the infuriated multitude that surrounds the bus (Tabak). This furious multitude is what the film cannot account for. Insofar as the film strives to produce another spectator it recognizes that the problem is the reaction to Sandro, but it errs in trying to correct the problem on the terrain of representation (by trying to explain Sandro making the “real” Sandro visible to the audience).
In The Grammar of the Multitude—a text that offers a much more ambivalent analysis of the concept of the multitude than Hardt and Negri’s Empire—Paolo Virno marks a distinction between fear and anguish that I find useful for understanding the crowd’s desire to kill Sandro. Fear, he argues, refers to a specific fact, anguish, or dread to our exposure to an uncertain world:
The distinction between circumscribed fear and unspecified fear is operative where there are substantial communities constituting a channel which is capable of directing our praxis and collective experience. It is a channel made of repetitive, and therefore comfortable, usages and customs ... Fear situates itself inside the community, inside its forms of life and communication. Anguish on the other hand makes its appearance when it distances itself from the community to which it belongs, from its shared habits, from its well-known ‘linguistic games’ and then penetrates the vast world. (Virno 32)
For Virno the concept of a “people” depends on such a distinction between fear and anguish and is, indeed, the membrane between the two. This is precisely what has failed in the contemporary world according to Virno. There is no longer a difference between inside and outside. Everyone is exposed. Given this state of exposure, the original experience in the contemporary world is to protect ourselves; we do so by identifying the particular dangers with which we have to concern ourselves as well as the refuges that could answer them. The logic is not unlike the way a passenger on an airplane might hone in on the loss of cabin pressure (and the attending solution of the oxygen mask) as a potential danger. In other words, danger manifests itself as a specific form of refuge because it channels dread into a containable fear. Rather than a problem of visibility and representation, therefore, what comes through in the film—what “adheres”, one might say along with Roland Barthes—is the lack of a membrane that can channel dread into fear. Without that membrane, under constant exposure to precariousness and violence, the crowd finds refuge in identifying Sandro with danger.
This equation is deeply disappointing from the perspective of a progressive intellectual politics. One might even argue that Padilha’s subsequent and very controversial movie, Tropa de Elite (2007), was an attempt to respond to this disappointment by adopting a non-representational strategy (modeled perhaps after Tomás Guttierez Alea’s Memorias del subdesarrollo ) that would trouble the audience’s drive to channel dread into fear through its identification with the police. In other words, one could read this second film as attempting to trap the audience into what should eventually turn out to be an uneasy identification with the police, forcing the public to reassess this identification. But this was disappointing too, to the extent that the movie was widely applauded and the main character Captain Nascimento transformed, as one critic said, into the “libertador de todos os medos e de todas as culpas, vingador natural de todos os corações desprotegidos” (Block, 231).
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- Tabak, Bernardo. “Excapitão do BOPE critical falta de estrutura no episódio do onibus 174” http://g1.globo.com/rio-de-janeiro/noticia/2010/06/ex-capitao-do-bope-critica-falta-de-estrutura-no-episodio-do-onibus-174.html (accessed 5/17/2013)